What Miguel Montero’s brutal honesty meant for Cubs and Kyle Hendricks

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AP

What Miguel Montero’s brutal honesty meant for Cubs and Kyle Hendricks

Miguel Montero picked the worst possible time to second-guess the way Joe Maddon handled the bullpen during the World Series and communicated with his players — a radio interview on the same day (!!!) as the championship parade through the streets of Chicago and a Grant Park rally that may or may not have been one of the largest gatherings in human history.

The cameras also caught Montero popping off at a time when the Cubs were hovering around .500 and running out of ideas to spark the defending champs. So team president Theo Epstein didn’t hesitate to DFA Montero in late June when the veteran catcher ripped Jake Arrieta for letting the Washington Nationals run wild on the bases. Eating almost $7 million in salary and shipping Montero to Canada became another button to press to shake up the clubhouse.

But Montero also came along at exactly the right time for Kyle Hendricks, who had 13 major-league starts for a last-place team on his resume heading into the breakthrough 2015 season that set up last year’s transformation into an ERA leader, Cy Young Award finalist and World Series Game 7 starter.

Montero doesn’t deserve a tribute on the video board when the Toronto Blue Jays come into Wrigley Field this weekend, but he also shouldn’t be remembered only as a loose cannon or a cartoon character.

“Miggy was huge for me,” Hendricks said on this week’s Cubs Talk podcast. “I know he didn’t go out the way he wanted to. He’s even texted all of us here. We have the utmost respect for him around this clubhouse. We know who he is, the teammate he was around here.

“For me in particular, he was probably the biggest influence right when I came up, from the catching side. He taught me a lot about pitching, especially at the big-league level. (He made) me feel comfortable at the big-league level.

“My development, I think, sped up a lot just because of him being around here, his experience, how much he knew the hitters, his feel and his ability just to talk to you. He could sit down and just have a conversation with you whenever.

“I owe a lot to him. And I’m excited to see him back here.”

The Cubs knew they were getting the good, the bad and the ugly when they traded for Montero during the 2014 winter meetings in San Diego, where they also closed the $155 million megadeal with Jon Lester and dramatically reshaped the franchise.

The Cubs wanted Montero’s edge, which only sharpened as he got stuck in various three-catcher rotations. But Montero welcomed Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras into the clubhouse, delivered a wake-up call to Albert Almora Jr. during a rehab assignment at Double-A Tennessee and worked with Arrieta as he blossomed into a Cy Young Award winner. Montero also became a bilingual intermediary last summer when Aroldis Chapman initially refused to talk to the media after making his Cubs debut.

After handling so many different personalities and styles with the Arizona Diamondbacks — everyone from Randy Johnson to Dan Haren — Montero made the case that Hendricks didn’t need to throw 97 mph to thrive when he could nail the edges and deceive and outthink hitters with movement and sequences. Street smarts from Venezuela and an Ivy League education became a great match.

“He always had that confidence in me, from Day 1, when I showed up in this clubhouse,” Hendricks said. “He caught my bullpens. He kind of saw what I could do with the baseball. He probably had more confidence in me than I had in myself when I first came up.

“That’s just how it is. You’re trying to find your footing. He just kept preaching that to me, telling me what he saw in me, what I could do, the ability I had against these hitters. And then we went out there together and kind of saw it happening.”

One Arizona official who knows Montero well theorized that he — like any former All-Star in his mid-30s nearing the free-agent market — simply had trouble coming to grips with the reality that he was no longer The Man.

Even if you may be right on both counts — and no matter how fast Montero patched it up with Arrieta — the backup catcher can’t blast a star manager and a star pitcher like that.

“It was too bad to see him go,” Hendricks said. “But that’s just baseball. That’s how it goes. You got to learn what you can from who’s around while they’re there and then move on. That’s just the nature of the game.”    

The Cubs' August blues

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USA TOADY

The Cubs' August blues

After the All-Star break, the Cubs went on a tear winning 13 of 16 games in the month of July. This run got a lot of people thinking they were about to break out for a 2016-esque late season streak to smoothly transition them into the playoffs.

Then August came around.

Since the change of month, the Cubs have lost seven of the 11 games they've played including three of five on the West coast. Saturday's 6-2 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks continued the mini slide. As a result, their lead in the division has been erased. The St. Louis Cardinals have moved into a tie for the division lead. So what gives? What happened to the team that made great moves at the trade deadline and killed it in July?

On the surface, it looks like the team is just worn down. They've only had one day off since the beginning of August and won't get another day off until August 21. For those of you counting at home that's three straight weeks of baseball for a team that was playing late into October last season. Not just that, but the Cubs are under a microscope unlike any other team. Everyone expected them to come out firing this season to defend their title seeing how dominant they were last year, but that was never the case. The Cubs struggled at the beginning of the season from a post-championship hangover that has somehow managed to stretch into August.

They've caught lightning in a bottle before, it's nothing strange to them. Last year they had a late season run that, arguably, helped propel them into a hot start in the playoffs which ended quite well. What the Cubs need is to find the cure to this lightning once again, and they need to find it fast. Otherwise, their August blues will only be the beginning of their troubles.

Redemption in The Desert: Kyle Schwarber goes deep in first game at Chase Field since ACL injury

Redemption in The Desert: Kyle Schwarber goes deep in first game at Chase Field since ACL injury

The last time Kyle Schwarber stepped foot on Chase Field, he was carted off after suffering a gruesome ACL and LCL injury in just the third game of the year that was supposed to end his 2016 season.

We all know what happened though in October, when he made a remarkable comeback six months into his recovery to help the Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians in seven games of the World Series and snap a 108-year championship drought.

On Friday, the 24-year-old slugger returned to The Desert for redemption and smoked a solo shot in the top of the sixth inning, guiding the Cubs to an 8-3 victory in their series opener against the Diamondbacks. Alex Avila followed that up with a homer of his own, his second in a Cubs uniform.

Check it out in the video above.